I had been living in Guatemala long enough that my travel visa was due for renewal. A vacation from my vacation, so to speak. I had the benefit of small town naiveté, mixed with a natural sense of adventure, so choosing to make this getaway destination one of the most dangerous places in Central America didn’t faze me in the least. I convinced another Canadian traveler to tag along and so began the bus ride to San Salvador – El Salvador’s capital city, which unbeknownst to me, was in the midst of a civil war.
We were the last people to get off the bus. Mostly because we had no idea where we were and every stop felt seedier than the last. There hadn’t been a point inviting enough to leave the “security” of public transportation. Not that the bus was a luxury cruiser … it was more like a wheelbarrow with bigger wheels, but we felt the thin layer of tin between us and what we could see out the window was enough to feel safe. We held out hope to the bitter end that we would eventually find ourselves somewhere that looked pleasant, or at the very least, unlike the movie set of a Stephen King film.
We didn’t find that place.
The driver hesitantly gestured us off the bus with a look of “you stupid gringos”. He wasn’t wrong. He pointed to a building a block ahead and said to go there – and only there – to spend the night.
The building looked uninhabited but it was a hostel of sorts. The couple working the front desk were shocked to see there were guests who had arrived. Imagine running a business and having been virtually customer-less for weeks. They scrambled to find a roll of toilet paper and a set of sheets to cover the frayed and stained mattress that was likely found in an inner-city dumpster. It was kind of like arriving to prison, minus the strip search. Also minus the meals, guards and caged courtyard – all luxuries we were not afforded. The couple explained that there were no restaurants open. Not because of the hour, though it was getting late, but because no one dared keep their doors open. They had a couple of beers in their rusty mini fridge that we purchased for the sake of satiation and celebration. It felt like arriving in tact was worth “cheersing” over. We were starting to understand that we were in a very unsafe area. It was dim and dingy everywhere. Streets, buildings, cars – all brown and abandoned.
We had a loaf of white bread and a bottle of barbeque sauce between us. I can’t recall an explanation for either but it wasn’t the only time we had been made to feel that our nutritional choices were obscure in Central America. I remember finding a store that sold peanut butter in Belize and the shop owner looking like he had really pulled the wool over my eyes when I happily handed over the 3 bucks to pay for it. Our alleged comforts of home turn foreigner’s stomachs in the ways ours would hearing them crave salted grasshoppers or horse meat. We climbed a ladder on the outside of the hostel building and set up a roof top picnic. We toasted the bread with a pocket lighter and slathered it with the bbq sauce. Washed down with cold cerveza, it didn’t seem as terrible a meal as it sounds.
In the streets below, fires burned in old oil barrels with swiss cheese holes and in the distance we could hear gun shots and screams. Compared to our dirty room – walls covered in either streaks of blood or dried bbq sauce from the last weary travelers – the roof top was pleasant.
Civil war was rampant in El Salvador and we had no idea.
Only later on a bus tour did we see on the TV screen that the country was more or less on lock down. Travel warnings, local warning, WARNINGS! everywhere. And here we were, a couple of white Canadians, wandering around like glow worms during a black out with our big packs and stupid smiles. There was little access to food, accommodations, safety or really any means of survival. This is the bittersweet nature of being in your twenties. You have so little fear that you’re willing to try anything. That “anything” could find you dodging bullets and eating condiments on the rooftops of strangers.
We survived the night and opted to run away the next morning to a neighboring small town. I felt like a sniper, cautiously peeking around the street corner and running for the next point of cover. We would soon be spotted and picked up by a kind, local guy named Manolo who took us back to his house where he and his mother lived. This truck ride could have just as easily taken us to a sacrificial ceremony in an abandoned jungle hut but we got lucky. Another perk of being 25 is your sense of invincibility. Despite where the driver took me, I trusted I could handle it. Manolo and his mother “cooked” us up some pancake batter. There was no electricity, so it was straight Aunt Jemima and water. The severity of poverty had settled in and I reminisced of the time my father kept me at the table for hours while I whined about disliking the tomato soup my mother had made for supper. What a spoiled little ass hole I was. I lost 11 pounds in the week that it took to get our visas sorted and back to the Guatemalan border. We would find street vendors selling small bowls of rice or broth every so often and rationed our bbq sauce, squirted and sucked off our fingers. Our “vacation” was a very twisted version of a Weight Watchers retreat.
In case you’re wondering why we didn’t go immediately back to the second most dangerous country in Central America right away, it’s because this wasn’t a simple matter of showing a passport and checking the “no” box to import of vegetables or carrying currencies in access of $10000. Manolo warned us that crossing back into Guatemala was more difficult than we thought and had to make elaborate plans to ensure we survived the transition. We had to lie down in the back of his pickup truck under a pile of smelly blankets and buckets as he essentially smuggled us back to Guatemala. He made arrangements for a bribe to a security guard at the border and we literally jumped out of the truck and made a run for it. I would have won an Olympic gold medal that day, had the dash been timed.
Manolo and I are still friends. He saved my life that trip, though I didn’t appreciate and recognize it in the ways that I do now.
As I find myself mid-week at a luxurious yoga retreat on the coast of Costa Rica, I am reminded of how our ideas of adventure shift and evolve. I am grateful for all of my travel experiences – good and bad – that have brought me to this place of self-love and discovery. That time spent in El Salvador contributes to my current sense of appreciation for things like food access, warm beds and safety.
Stay tuned for what 10-years-later travel looks like!